Speaking back to the undermining demons

Some time ago (was it 40 years ago when I started teaching? 3 years ago when I started talking to a colleague about mythopoetics? last year when I started writing blog posts about it?), I began to think about whether the telling of fictionalised stories could be considered legitimate scholarship. I’ve written about it, read others writing, and done some of it, all of this in the company of colleagues.

This being ‘in the company of colleagues’ has mattered. There’s this meme floating around – I sense it living a snug life inside my psyche – that the reading and writing of fiction is an escape from the realities of this world, rather than an attempted deeper engagement with what is. I’m regularly undermined by doubts about the scholarly legitimacy of where my work is taking me.

Dr Malcolm Reed

Dr Malcolm Reed

Being in the company of colleagues includes finding, in the literature, fellow travellers, and this week I found another one. A journal editor to whom I’d submitted a short story suggested I read some of Malcolm Reed’s articles and stories, and I’ve started to do that.

A fellow traveller? Reed is such an erudite one, so seemingly versed in the literature (Foucault, Bakhtin, Geertz, Barone, as well as scores of others I’ve never heard of) that again the internal gremlins, giggling at my scholarly adolescence, are nudged into action. It jabs at me that I know so little of the broader academic literature that scholars like Reed draw on. I wonder if it’s too late.

Discovering that Reed works in the Helen Wodehouse Building in the Bristol Graduate School of Education was a pleasant surprise. That’s where I did my teacher training in the early 1970s, with teachers I’ll never forget (Pat Smyth, Norman Stephenson and Charles Hannam), thinking about teaching philosophies in a way that has perhaps, sadly, gone out of fashion now. What did we think deeply motivated people? What fundamental reforms (beyond the naming of teacher competencies, the exercise of more effective classroom control and the extension of mandatory state testing) might benefit the education system? What kind of a teacher did our students need us to be?

So Malcolm Reed works there. And writes about ‘fictional ethnography’. Writes stories, too. The one I read yesterday was a beautifully written, totally engrossing, and I’ll use it in my teaching.

He’s also had rejections (along with many acceptances) for his ‘fictional ethnography’, and I enjoyed (because I’ve experienced) his description of some of the rejections. Some reviewers, he wrote, required

‘a rigorously reflexive and theoretically analytical explication of [the] significance that outweighed the (implied) intellectual paucity of needing to illustrate through ‘narrative’ in the first place … [but I] decided that I just could not drag out the viscera of a story and twist them outside its own body for interrogative or auspicial purposes (32)

Reed goes on to draw on ‘a tradition of fellow travellers’ to argue that we’re missing the point if we try to argue that mythopoetics (he doesn’t use the word – he prefers ‘fictional ethnography’) reveals truths or represents realities. He suggests that there is no remembering or conceptualizing, whether its in a scientific or a mythopoetic vein, that reveals objective truth or represents reality. All representations are fictions of one kind or another. He quotes Vaihinger (37).

This conceptual world is not a picture of the actual world but an instrument for grasping and subjectively understanding that world.

The world of ideas is essentially an expedient of thought, an instrument, for rendering action possible in the world of reality.

I called my PhD thesis (which looked at the nature and function of stories in psychotherapy) ‘Mating with the world’, and I think what Reed and Vaihinger are saying is what I was trying to say in my thesis: that stories are important less for what is contained in them and more for what they actually do. They help us to think, to connect, and to act.

Reed talks about the ‘semiotic traffic’ that travels between people when stories are told, how they function as connectors, mediators, bringing the ‘me’ and the ‘you’ together, giving us access to others’ worlds and affording us opportunities to reflect, differently, on our own. He draws on some of his fellow travellers to suggest a ‘transactional view’ of ethnographic fictions, that they evoke, provoke, engage ‘by their verisimilitude … authenticity or integrity … whereby readers correspond to experiences coded in the text with feelings, imaginations and understandings’ (35).

I’m off to Prague next month to speak at a conference about storytelling. I’ve been thinking, as I prepare, about story’s capacity to agitate, complicate, induct and animate. I think I’m discovering, through writings such as Reed’s, that while I might be visited by undermining demons from time to time, I’m not alone in thinking that the mythopoetic is worth thinking about and worth practising.

Reed, M. (2006). The visit. Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education, 13(3), 273-282.

Reed, M. (2011). Somewhere Between What Is and What If: Fictionalisation and Ethnographic Inquiry, . Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education, 18:1, 31-43, 18(1), 31-43.

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One thought on “Speaking back to the undermining demons

  1. Pingback: Speaking back to the undermining demons | Birds fly, fish swim

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